This man knows his way around Conductor: Hans Graf brings an international repertoire to the podium.

October 03, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If experienced conductors were asked what the Baltimore Symphony ought to look for in a new music director, most would agree on three guidelines.

It ought to be someone in his 40s, old enough to be experienced but young enough to stay at least a decade. It ought to be someone with international experience and good recordings to his credit. And if a European is hired, it must be someone who understands that in America, orchestras aren't state-supported and must raise their own money.

Hans Graf, who makes his debut with the Baltimore Symphony this week, satisfies all three criteria.

The athletic-looking 48-year-old Austrian has conducted most of the standard symphonic and operatic repertory -- including successes as a guest conductor in Boston, Pittsburgh and Detroit, as well as Vienna, Paris and Leipzig.

His discography includes a distinguished set of Mozart's symphonies, recorded during his 10-year tenure (1984-1994) as music director of Salzburg's Mozarteum Orchestra, on the Capriccio label.

And, perhaps most important, he understands the money problem. He's just started his third year as music director of the Calgary Philharmonic in Canada, where arts don't get much more support from the government than they do in the United States.

When he made his American debut in 1989 with the Buffalo Philharmonic, Graf confesses, "I was naive about the way orchestras are run here. But as I got to know the American system, I developed great respect for it and for the people who care enough about orchestras to contribute to their support.

"Much more respect, certainly," Graf adds, "than for those in Europe who sit back and wait for the government to pay for everything. In 10 years, those governments won't be paying for anything, and orchestras will be totally unprepared."

Graf's fluent English -- he is equally comfortable in Russian and Spanish (he's also music director of Spain's Orchestra National de Euskadi) -- is only lightly accented. He learned long ago to adjust to other cultures. As a high school student, he elected to learn Russian instead of English, he says, "because I knew that I would learn English anyway and that learning Russian would be more difficult when I was older."

His Russian was useful in the early 1970s, when he spent more than a year in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as a conducting student of the famed Arvid Jansons (the teacher and father of Pittsburgh Symphony music director Mariss Jansons). Graf not only attended the elder Jansons' rehearsals and concerts, but ,, also those of Evgeny Mravinsky, whose place among the century's great conductors is comparable to those of Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner and George Szell.

"To watch and to listen to Mravinsky conduct the musicians of the Leningrad Philharmonic was wonderful," Graf says. "Like those of Toscanini, Reiner and Szell, his was a reign of terror and of divine inspiration. But the respect he received from musicians was based less on fear than on their devotion to his artistic ideals."

When Graf returned to Austria, he accepted a job as a vocal coach at the Vienna State Opera, eventually becoming an assistant conductor.

"Aside from five operas important to me -- Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' Wagner's 'Tristan,' Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov,' Debussy's 'Pelleas' and Berg's 'Wozzeck' -- I knew nothing about and hated opera," he says. "After seven years at the State Opera, I learned to love it. And I think working in the opera house is the best possible way to learn the craft of conducting."

It was surely good enough to help Graf win first prize in the 1979 Karl Bohm Competition, one of the most prestigious contests for young conductors. That prize helped launch the 29-year-old musician's international career. Five years later, he became music director in Salzburg, and a few years later, he had his first invitations to conduct in America.

His appointment in Calgary came about because of his appearances with the Dallas Symphony. Graf had become friends with the Texas orchestra's executive director, Steven Leonard, who retired to his native Calgary only to be persuaded to become involved with that city's orchestra.

"Calgary was looking for a replacement for [music director] Mario Bernardi, and Steve arranged for some board members and musicians to hear me in Dallas," Graf says. "They asked if I would be willing to spend 10 weeks each season in Calgary, and I said yes."

He clearly loves Calgary, where, he says, "you can see the edge of the Rockies and where the Chinook winds can make temperatures drop 70 degrees within a few hours," and where he has just made his first recording with the orchestra.

"It's devoted to piano concertos by Albeniz, Turina, Montsalvatge and de Falla, and the soloist is Angela Cheng," Graf says. "The notion of Spanish music performed by a Canadian orchestra, an Austrian conductor and a Chinese pianist is something I find very appealing."

And he's also learned his way around the corners of Canadian geography, politics and economics.

Is Calgary near the site of Alberta's oil fields? he's asked.

"No, those are in Edmonton," Graf says, with a knowing smile. "But the money from that oil -- it all comes to Calgary!"

BSO in concert

What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Hans Graf

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow;3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $17-$53

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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